Bears head south in search of crown

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Cal women’s swimming head coach Teri McKeever aims to lead Cal’s revamped team – with a total of eight new freshmen — to another NCAA championship this year. The first meet of the 2012-2013 season will begin in San Luis Obispo from Sept. 21 to 23 for the Cal Poly King and Queen of the Pool meet.

“The Cal Poly meet gives us the chance to see every athlete race in every event,” associate head coach Kristen Cunnane said. “From their weakest event to their strongest events, they have to perform every single stroke. It’s a really great chance for us to see our racing in a number of different events.”

The Cal Poly meet is a dual meet that just features Cal Poly and Cal. After sweeping the top 13 places last year, No. 1 Cal does not expect much competition from the Mustangs.

However, the Bears experienced a huge setback after losing seniors, such as Olympic silver medalist Sara Isakovic and multiple NCAA title winner Liv Jensen.

“Our seniors were definitely great swimmers and great leaders,” Cunnane said. “It will be interesting to see how our freshmen fit into those roles and how our new upperclassmen step up.”

Freshmen such as Elizabeth Pelton — who set an American record in the 200-yard backstroke, and Rachel Bootsma — who broke the 2011 Pan American games record for the 100-meter backstroke — should be able to meet the high expectations.

“There’s definitely been a lot of talk about the freshman class,” Pelton said. “I think we’re all excited rather than nervous and we’re ready to step up.”

As Cal’s only senior, Caitlin Leverenz is not only a team leader but also a role model to the large freshmen class.

“She clearly has the team captain role … and is a mentor to all of us, especially the freshmen,” Pelton said. “She’s really taken the reins and will hopefully take us to the top.”

Three-time defending Queen of the Pool and Olympic bronze medalist Leverenz looks to improve on her time and win one last time.

The swimmer who clocks in the lowest combined time for the five 100-yard events — freestyle, backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly and individual medley — is crowned Queen of the Pool. As a freshman, Leverenz won with a combined time of 4:49.55 and defended her title her sophomore and junior years with times of 4:48.03 and 4:45.12, respectively.

Under the leadership of McKeever and Leverenz, the freshman class should have high expectations for the season and confidence for the Cal Poly meet.

“We expect them (the freshmen) to come in and embrace the Cal culture and push themselves to be as great as they can be their freshman year,” Cunnane said.

Johnny Zhang covers women’s swimming.